Dancing Mill Culture in the Southern Piedmont

Arts / Article

By Eric Mullis, Triptych Collective

Since the Triptych Collective’s artistic home is in a former mill village in Charlotte N.C., last summer I started doing extensive research into southern textile mill culture.  I wanted to know who worked in those factories and lived in the small mill houses, what their lives were like, and how they helped shape Charlotte.  Mill culture has many aspects and I decided to focus on the strikes that spread through the Southern Piedmont before the Great Depression.  I learned about how southern textile owners ignored the newly passed minimum wage law and often threatened to fire worker and worker families who considered joining a union and/or striking for better working conditions.  In addition, since mill homes were company owned, mill workers who resisted company power could end up homeless.

After studying documentary footage and historical photographs, my dancers and I began to create movement that was based on actions that were performed on the factory floor, actions that were needed to keep looms running smoothly.  In this way we began to embody the actions that were dictated by the efficient logic of textile machinery.  After performing excerpts of Poor Mouth publicly in front of an abandoned mill, at our winter show in December of 2013, and in the local mill town of Rock Hill, S.C. many audience members approached members of the ensemble and noted that the piece gave them a window into mill culture and, interestingly, may of the them observed that in many ways nothing has changed.  That is, many working class families in the United States still struggle to make ends meet while working jobs that do not pay a living wage.  Further, some audience members commented that the Southern textile mills closed down and moved to China and India so that mill owners could avoid paying a living wage and could capitalize on an abundance of cheap labor that flows into industrial cities from farms in the countryside.  The conditions that Southern textile workers struggled against have not ceased to exist.

This feedback encouraged us to dig deeper into the piece.  Poor Mouth dancer and Triptych Collective co-founder Caitlyn Swett suggested that we personalize the piece by encouraging dancers to draw on their experiences of vulnerability, experiences that arose in response to external factors that were beyond their control.  Even though we cannot know what it was working in a textile mill in the late 1920’s we could relate to experiences of being controlled by external forces beyond our control.  We each picked a particular experience of vulnerability, journaled about it, and then created a movement phrase that kinetically captures and expresses what that experience of vulnerability.  Then, in rehearsals we discussed our experiences, taught each other our movement phrases and then incorporated them into the piece.  In a similar fashion, we listened to an extended interview housed at the Oral History Project, an interview with an elderly couple who both worked in the now abandoned mill that we danced in front of last December.  Each dancer picked a particular aspect of the dialogue that resonated with them and created a movement sequence that embodies that experience of resonance.

In this manner we have personally connected with this important aspect of Southern history.  My hope is that Poor Mouth does justice to this history and to the lives of the mill workers who helped created New South Cities such as Charlotte N.C.

The final draft of Poor Mouth will be presented at the Neighborhood Theatre in Charlotte North Carolina on April 24th, 2014.  For more information about other work that will be presented in the show see triptych collective.com